Gold Nugget Answer: How Can I Get Company Leaders to Document

A common question we get at Employers Council is “How can I get managers and supervisors to document?”  The gold nugget answer is illuminated by an analogy.

Most of us have asked a teenager to do something.  Their inevitable, almost immediate response is “WHY?”  This pushback is maddening to us, but think about it – what is your response when someone asks you to do something that will require you to spend time and effort?  It’s likely that your response is also often … drumroll please … “WHY?”  Continuing our analogy, how well did it work if you answered the teenager by saying “because I said so” or “because it’s important?”  We’d wager it didn’t work out too well, that the teenager likely didn’t end up doing what you asked – at least not without a fight or you withholding a privilege.

How does this analogy provide the gold nugget answer to the question of “how do I get company leaders to document?”  Well, just like your request to the teenager, your request to company leaders to document will require them to spend time and effort.  And, just like the teenager’s response, the company leaders’ response is most likely – “WHY?”  Thus, an essential gold nugget in getting company leaders to document is to answer their question of “WHY?”  And, just like with our teenager analogy, answering with “because I said so” or “because it’s important” isn’t going to motivate documentation.  We’ve got to dig deeper.


So, what are the deeper “WHYS” behind employee documentation?

Many times, we see organizations tell company leaders to document so that if the company is sued over an employment-related action, there will be proof to show the company didn’t violate the law.  STOP – end of conversation.  This invites failure.  Sure, the courtroom reason is an important reason that company leaders should know about.  Lawsuits are painful enough with documentation; you don’t want to be there without it!  But, as the likelihood is pretty low that any one company leader’s documentation will actually end up being needed to defend a lawsuit, this reason alone isn’t enough to motivate your company leaders to invest time and effort to document, especially because they’re often already too busy to accomplish everything else they are supposed to.


So, what are the other deeper “WHYS” behind documentation?  We offer two.

  1. Documentation turns employees’ behavior around and helps them remain employed. How much does your company spend to hire a new employee and get them up to full productivity?  Statistics show it ranges from half a year’s salary up to two times a year’s salary.  So, if you hire someone at $10 an hour, you spend between $10,000 and $40,000 to get them up to full productivity.  That’s a fair amount of money.  If you bought a machine for that amount and it started to malfunction, you wouldn’t just unplug it and throw it in the garbage; rather, you’d try to fix it.  Translate that same idea to a new hire.  If you invest in a new hire and they start to misperform, it’s not a sound business decision to “unplug them and throw them in the garbage.”  Rather, it’s prudent to try to fix the situation.  As a way to fix the situation, we counsel companies to follow a progressive discipline process where you put the employee on notice of what they are doing incorrectly and give them an opportunity to correct.  We recommend this be coupled with documentation to the employee.  WHY?  Meetings where employees are told they are misperforming are emotional; they may not hear everything in the meeting.  Giving them a document that states the deficiency and the need to turn it around allows them to have a reference later when they are not so emotional and increases the chances that they will turn their behavior around and remain employed.  Often, when employees are faced with such information, they make the correction.  It’s human nature to want to do things correctly and please others; plus employees have economic motivation – they need the income from the job.  Thus, one of the reasons company leaders should document is so that all the time, effort, and money spent hiring a new employee isn’t wasted, but rather results in an employee who the company leaders can depend on to fully pull their weight.  Wow, what company leader wouldn’t want that type of an employee!
  2. Documentation helps company leaders do their jobs better.  This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak.  If the company leader is going to spend time and effort to document, what’s in it for them?  Plain and simple:  Documentation will help them do their job better.  How?
  • Leaders are expected to communicate expectations.  Good documentation is part of that process; it reiterates spoken expectations to the employee and tells them they either are or are not meeting the expectations.
  • Leaders are expected to coach employees to improved poor performance.  Good documentation helps with this because it specifically identifies the poor performance and goes on to offer suggestions to improve.
  • Leaders are expected to deliver ROI.  As laid out above, hiring a new employee is an investment.  Progressive discipline coupled with documentation often leads to employees retaining their jobs, and thus delivers an ROI.
  • Leaders are expected to address trends – like should employees be rewarded for working needed OT, or disciplined because they are messing around during work hours and have to stay late.  Documentation allows leaders to see if trends are developing that should be addressed.
  • Leaders are expected to discipline employees and deliver clear messages about performance and consequences.  Discipline meetings with employees are tough – for both the leader and the employee.  Documentation can provide a script, which can help calm the leader’s nervousness and help them deliver the expected message.
  • Leaders are expected to make sound, well-justified decisions – like who gets raises, promotions, or terminated.  Documentation = the justification.  And, documentation helps the leader remember the justifications because let’s face it, most of us can’t remember what happened yesterday – let alone a couple months or a year back.
  • Plus, as bonuses, documentation:
    • Helps leaders be able to take the personnel decisions they feel are warranted.  For example, let’s say an employee has been misperforming for months and the leader is ready to terminate the employee now.  Without documentation showing the employee was on notice of the issues and given an opportunity to correct them, HR likely will not approve the termination.  But, if there is such documentation, then HR is more likely to approve the termination.
    • Save leaders time.  Continuing with the example above, if there’s no documentation – the leader has to go back and spend more time managing a misperforming employee; but, if there’s documentation, the leader does not have to spend such time.  On this point, we often tell company leaders … spend a little time up front to save you a lot of time down the road.

Going back to our opening teenager analogy, we likely often find that when we take time to explain the “WHYS” behind what we are asking, we get buy in and performance by the teenager.  Taking time to fully explain the deeper “WHYS” of documentation may well result in buy in and performance from your company leaders:  it will show them how the “WHYS” directly connect to and help them, and thus is much more likely motivate them to document.

In closing, we offer three additional gold nuggets that are essential to ensuring documentation success at your organization:

  1. TIME: Make sure company leaders actually have time to document.  This may take some exploring of job duties, reallocation of work, discussions/commitment from upper management … but if you want leaders to document, you’ve got to make sure you remove the institutional barriers.
  2. TRAIN: Train your company leaders on HOW to create documentation.  Employers Council can help.  We can bring training to you, onsite.  This is one of our most popular onsite trainings.  Contact any staff member to discuss this option further.  In addition, Employers Council offers a public class entitled Performance Documentation Skills.  Access our online training catalog at to see dates and register.
  3. EASE: Make it easy for company leaders to document.  Consider having sample forms, examples of good documentation, writing clinics, easy storage locations, designated HR folks that managers can contact for help, etc.  To get started, login to and get out helpful FYI on “Documenting Performance Behavior;” it includes sample forms and documentation phrases, as well as other tips.

Good luck implementing these gold nuggets of documentation.  We are here to support you.  Reach out with any questions.